Remember the two missiles defense sites—one in Poland, the other in the Czech Republic—that the Obama administration cancelled last fall as a goodwill gesture to Russia? The stated rationale at the time was: Since the sites were intended to defend America and our allies from Iranian missiles, and our intelligence estimated that the Iranians were a long way from fielding such missiles, the sites were unnecessary.

Now, this was a transparently flimsy excuse even at the time. If we believed (which we did then and do now) that Iran is determined to develop ICBMs, then why wait? It takes time to build interceptor and radar sites and make sure they work properly. Is the right time to begin only after the threatening country has in hand the capability which the installations are intended to counter?

But the story gets even fishier. A new estimate sent from the Defense Department to Capitol Hill puts the date at which Iran could threaten the U.S. homeland with a ballistic missile at 2015. That replaces the May 2009 National Intelligence Estimate (which Obama officials cited as the reason for cancelling the Eastern European sites) timeframe of 2015-2020. Actually, “replace” is the wrong word. “Revert” is better, since an earlier estimate placed the range at 2012-2015.

What did we learn that caused the intelligence community to believe Iran’s missile development had slowed? And what have we learned since that caused the intelligence community to abandon that update? The report sheds no light. One possibility: Iran’s February 2010 launch of a satellite on a two-stage rocket. That came after at least one prior launch that U.S. intelligence had judged to be a failure (though Iranian state media had trumpeted as a success), and another which appears to have been a success. There’s no disagreement about this latest launch, however. It appears to have worked as planned. This is troubling because the difference between an ICBM and a space rocket can be minimal to non-existent. Indeed, the American Titan rocket served as both the backbone of the U.S. ICBM fleet for more than a decade and of NASA’s Gemini manned space program.

Whatever the reason for the accelerated estimate, the report hammers away at the last conceivable intellectual prop for abandoning our Eastern European allies and for delaying the implementation of missile defenses.

One can’t help but notice that the prior assessment was politically convenient to the Obama administration, which desperately wanted out of the Bush administration’s commitment to build those sites in Poland and the Czech Republic but needed a rationale. Tracing through prior IC statements on Iran’s missile program—as Tom Joscelyn did here—one finds that 2015 had long been the benchmark date. Perhaps officials in the Defense Department were uneasy with the May 2009 NIE and this new report is their attempt to correct the record.

It is at least potentially curious that this report was dropped a mere two days after the leak of a memo from the Secretary of Defense to the White House claiming that the administration has no long-term strategy for dealing with the Iranian threat.

Then again, maybe it’s just a coincidence. As the old Washington adage has it, never ascribe to cunning what can be easily explained by incompetence, inertia, or chance.

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